Friday May 16th, 2008

Four years after Wayne Gretzky stunned observers by calling out his name fifth overall at the 2004 entry draft, Blake Wheeler is ready to leave the University of Minnesota and join the NHL. The question is, will it be Gretkzy's Coyotes that sign him?

It's no sure thing. By leaving school before his senior season, Wheeler activated a loophole that would make him a free agent if he's not signed by Phoenix in 30 days. Typically the four-year rights window would cover a player's entire college career, but because Wheeler spent his post-draft season in the USHL, his situation is unique -- and exploitable under the CBA.

He's obviously fishing for the rookie maximum, and it's likely the Coyotes -- a team in no position to let a decent prospect walk -- would give it to him. They've already made a preliminary (read: significantly lesser) contract offer to Wheeler's camp. But while Wheeler's certainly saying all the right things about Phoenix, it's clear that he likes having his options open to find the deal that gives him the best chance to start his career in the NHL.

Though a center in college, he'll likely play right wing as a pro, and there looks to be room for him on the Coyotes behind Shane Doan and pending UFA Radim Vrbata. But if Wheeler really prefers to play elsewhere, his package of size (6-5, 225), speed and skill (he led the disappointing Gophers with 35 points) would make him an intriguing package, even if a team doesn't project him to be a top-six forward.

Because he remains Phoenix property, no team can speak about their degree of interest in Wheeler, but it's easy to imagine scenarios whereby Tampa Bay, Dallas, Toronto, Minnesota and maybe Colorado and San Jose (neither has a first-rounder this year) might get in on the bidding.

If he does sign with another club, the Coyotes would receive a compensatory draft pick, believed to be 35th overall. That would give Phoenix four second- rounders in a very interesting draft, handing them the potential to be big players in Ottawa this June.

Speaking of Morrow, here's a bit of good news for St. Louis fans. Former first- rounder T.J. Oshie, signed by the Blues this week, has received favorable comparisons to the Dallas Stars' captain.

"There's a lot of similarity to their games," one scout said. "They're both short, but their frames are huge. They're power forwards in the truest sense. Oshie will go through you or around you to make a play. Great instincts, a great leader, and a big game player."

It's expected that Oshie will have a spot waiting for him next season on a Blues roster that continues a rapid, and very promising, overhaul. St. Louis signed 2007 first-rounder Lars Eller this week, but it's thought that the Danish forward is headed back to Sweden for another year to continue his development.

While the Blues are taking care of business, a number of teams are running out of time to get some of their top prospects under contract or risk having them re-enter the draft. The CBA includes a deadline of June 1 for signing players from the CHL or the European leagues who were selected in 2006 or earlier.

Florida faces the biggest challenge, needing to get Michael Frolik (10th overall, 2006) to agree to terms. Speculation suggests he's likely to sign with the Panthers because returning to this particularly deep draft would do nothing to enhance his bargaining position, but there's also concern that he might not like the way the franchise has been treading water since he was selected and he might be interested in taking his chances. Florida also needs to ink winger Brady Calla (73rd) and defenseman Michael Caruso (103rd).

Other noteworthy players facing the deadline include Russian World Junior team captain Yuri Alexandrov (BOS, 37th overall, 2006), Ondrej Fialia (MIN, 40th, 2006), Igor Makarov (CHI, 33rd, 2006), Jhonas Enroth (BUF, 46th, 2006), Viktor Alexandrov (STL 83rd, 2004), Jonas Ahnelov (PHO, 88th, 2006), Kirill Lyamin (OTT, 58th, 2004) and Alexander Vasyunov (58th, 2006).

Here's hoping the Hockey Hall of Fame was paying attention yesterday when the IIHF Hall of Fame announced its 2008 class of inductees during ceremonies in Quebec City. Along with Mario Lemieux -- guess they wanted to be extra thorough in vetting his credentials -- the IIHF honored Igor Larionov and three greats of the women's game: Angela James, Geraldine Heaney and Cammi Granato.

Larionov should have been invited to the Hockey Hall as a 2007 honoree, but now may have to wait impatiently due to the caliber of upcoming classes. The real focus, however, should be on the women. Granato's case for induction into the HHOF is sound. Her 15-year-career including playing in every World Championship and Olympics from the inaugural event in 1990 through 2005. She won two golds and nine silvers, and three times was named a tournament All-Star. More important, she was the face of the women's game in the United States, and remains it's most visible ambassador. James also deserves immediate consideration as, arguably, the first superstar of the women's game. The Canadian forward scored 22 goals in 20 games at the first four Women's World Championships.

Just a reminder, to the deep thinkers at the round table: it's the Hockey Hall of Fame, not the NHL Hall of Fame.

Interesting take from Brenden Morrow on the early Game 1 penalty on Mark Fistric that put the Stars down two men and led directly to Brian Rafalski's tone-setting opening goal. The Dallas captain believes it was the direct result of a grudge held by veteran referee Bill McCreary after Fistric was a little too aggressive in complaining about a call against him earlier in the playoffs.

"That was just payback from something that happened in the Anaheim series between [Fistric] and McCreary," Morrow said on a Dallas radio show. "Just my own opinion, but I think that was something that was made up. I think there was a little grudge."

Watching the replay, it's obvious the call had little merit and the Stars had a reasonable beef. But questioning the integrity of a veteran official might not have been the wisest approach ...especially with McCreary slated to work Game 5 in Detroit on Saturday.

Questionable marketing ploy of the week: Down three games to none in the Western Conference Finals, the Stars announced their playoff-themed "Believe" t-shirts were on sale for half-off midway through the scoreless second period of Game 4 on Wednesday night. No word on whether they went back to full price after Dallas prolonged their postseason with a 3-1 win.

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